Music has always been a part of my life. As a young child, I was singing, playing guitar and performing for family and friends. Through the years, I’ve sung with various groups, attended numerous concerts and currently I enjoy singing along to my favorite Pandora station. Often a certain song reverberates through my iPad, drawing me in and speaking to me in an intimate and powerful way. My thoughts immediately hone in on a different place and time, or to a fond or pleasant memory. Once the music and lyrics take hold, I am simply engulfed. And sometimes I feel as though the songwriter spied on me to write the lyrics.
For example, the song “Superman” by Five for Fighting takes me to where I was the minute Sept. 11, 2001 began and the many heroic stories that began to unfold after. Heart’s song “Crazy On You” reminds me of my time in high school as a makeup artist and crew member during our school’s musicals. We would play the entire album over and over while we worked backstage.
Though our music tastes may differ, and lyrics may resonate differently to each of us, the musical notes and words combined inevitably stir our emotions, because we hear memories and storylines that seem to be lifted from our very own life experiences.
The lyrics we so love understandably mean even more to the writer and the performer who sings them — many times this person is one and the same. I have had the pleasure of attending the 30A Songwriters Festival each year and this realization has become evident as I listen to the each songwriter performing lyrics with the same passion that drove him to write them. I’ve heard not only the stories behind the words and the melodies, but also the heartfelt emotion behind them. As I listen, I feel as though I’m meeting a real person, who feels, who laughs, who cries — a person who experiences life like we all do. Immediately, I can identify with the thoughts, emotions and actions that lead to the songs being written and why.
In multiple intimate settings along Scenic Highway 30A, each venue incites its own atmosphere and ambiance, each songwriter pouring his heart out, or laughing and joking while connecting with the audience on a very basic level. With several back-to-back performances to watch, it is a unique opportunity to experience the heartfelt dedication of songwriting as we get to see inside the personalities of the artists. As listeners, we can sit back, in many cases, listen to our own lives unfold and even marvel as, perhaps, our own stories are being told.
Maybe that’s why, year after year, the 30A Songwriters Festival draws more and more enthusiastic, appreciative and knowledgeable audiences to South Walton, as each guest identifies with a particular songwriter, or even several. Now in its ninth year, on Jan. 12 through 15, South Walton will be transformed into the “coolest” songwriters paradise, but the “hottest” mid-January destination for savvy music fans. Attendees will invest in quality listening experiences while making new discoveries. Songwriters will become approachable performers, not necessarily in the limelight and unreachable, but down-to-earth folks like you and me, with a passion to tell their stories live through lyrics.
A variety of venues is available according to preference of taste. Seaside locations include Central Square Records, Bud & Alley’s Waterfront Restaurant & Roof Top Bar, Pizza Bar and The REP Theatre. Ticket holders can get a “ringside” seat to see their favorite singer-songwriters — and discover new ones — in relaxed, intimate settings — all within walking distance of the beach. From rustic bars to upscale restaurants, from small coffee houses and cool record stores to large lake houses and from indoor halls to outdoor amphitheaters, there is surely a venue atmosphere to suit everyone. One of my favorites is Central Square Records located above Seaside’s Sundog Books, which is open to both ticket and non-ticket holders. It’s more of a casual atmosphere and folks can even stand on the porch upstairs and listen to music. Central Square Records also sells festival tickets and CDs of some of the musicians who stop in during their stay.
And the guest songwriters? They have discovered there are few things better than performing live at a gracious and grateful coastal destination. “The 30A Songwriters Festival is a three-day party which takes place along the outrageously gorgeous beaches of South Walton, unexpectedly romantic in wintertime. A series of magical moments unfolding over the course of the long weekend — old friends reuniting, new friendships being born … large audiences and performers enjoying days and nights of music, storytelling both poignant and humorous, spontaneous jams, Southern hospitality, delicious food and wine — the experience of 30A is guaranteed to make you feel exhilarated and alive,” says Susanna Hoffs of The Bangles.
While some of the talent at this year’s festival are locals just starting out or seasoned songwriters vocalizing their own penned lyrics, others have been known to write tunes made famous by popular artists. Being able to get up close and personal with these music hit makers is an allure of the festival. And this year’s lineup brings together some of the best music industry talents —more than 175 stellar songwriters and artists delivering more than 225 performances on 25 stages set all along Scenic Highway 30A and South Walton. Headliners performing on the main stage include esteemed artists Ann Wilson of Heart, Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, The Zombies, North Mississippi Allstars and Lee Ann Womack. Premier nighttime performances include Charles Kelly of Lady Antebellum, Patty Griffin, Emily Saliers of Indigo Girls with her solo Murmuration Nation band, Shawn Mullins and Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame members Mike Reid and Craig Wiseman.
Other esteemed songwriters include Tommy Stinson (the Replacements, Bash & Pop), John Gorka, Gretchen Peters, Jeffrey Steele, Kim Richey, Mary Gauthier, Jeff Black, Will Kimbrough, Dan Navarro, The War & Treaty, Wyatt Durette, Farewell Angelina, Griffin House, Levi Lowrey, Gabriel Kelley, Michael McDermott, Peter Case, Charlie Mars, Peter Bradley Adams, Chris Stills, Emerson Hart (Tonic), David Ryan Harris (John Mayer Band), David Hodges (Evanescence), Erick Baker, Heather Horton, Jesse Terry, Joe Crookston, Old Salt Union, Peter Karp, Randall Bramblett, Robby Hecht, Don Dixon and Marti Jones, Becky Warren, Alex Guthrie, Jemina & Selina, Mary Bragg, Blue Jays, Josh Osborne, Jaren Johnston, Mark Irwin, Jonathan Singleton, Jeremy Stover, Matt Dragstrem, Adam Hambrick, Jacob Davis, Austin Jenckes, David Berkeley, Davin McCoy, Matt Hires, David Robert King, Eliot Bronson and Michelle Malone.
If we are lucky, we might hear Headliner Ann Wilson tell the stories behind some of her iconic songs, which for me evoke such memories, such as “Crazy On You,” “Barracuda,” “Magic Man,” “Dog & Butterfly,” “Straight On,” “Even It Up,” “Mistral Wind,” and many more.
However, her greatest gift, and first “calling” is singing. Her voice is considered to be among the best ever, with its vast range, amazing power and sheer musicality. “The stage is a magical place where I can be beautifully in and out of control, where I can build a fire and then jump into it,” says the esteemed and pioneering Rock and Roll Hall of Fame legend who’s known for her force-of-nature vocals.
“The stage is where I have always lived; where I’ve expressed my deepest emotions and supreme joys,” Wilson continues, “I suppose I am addicted to it. I’ve never been much good at talking, but I can sing. And when I sing, I connect with people in a much deeper, higher way.” We should expect the unexpected. Wilson will likely perform a mix of songs that have powered her life; iconic soul stirring covers, songs from years of solo work and the unforgettable songs of Heart. Wilson says she wants “to give people a point of recognition; to help people understand who I am and where I came from.”
Lee Ann Womack is the country singer songwriter best known for her single “I Hope You Dance,” which became a number one hit in the Billboard Country Chart and a top 15 single of the Billboard Hot 100, becoming her trademark. She will likely perform songs from her new album, “The Lonely, The Lonesome & The Gone,” which explores the East Texas native’s traditional country roots meshed with soul, gospel and blues, which also tells the story of her musical upbringing.
Guests to South Walton will enthusiastically welcome 13-time Grammy winner and Billboard Century Award recipient Emmylou Harris, whose contribution as a singer and songwriter spans 40 years. She has recorded more than 25 albums and has lent her talents to countless fellow artists’ recordings. In recognition of her remarkable career, Harris was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2008. She is known as much for her eloquently straightforward songwriting as for her incomparably expressive singing. Admired throughout her career for her talent as an artist and song connoisseur, Harris shook up country radio in the 1970s, and established herself as the premiere songwriter of a generation, selling more than 15 million records and garnering 13 Grammy Awards, three CMA Awards and two Americana Awards. She is one of the most admired and influential women in music. She has recorded with such diverse artists as Linda Ronstadt, Daniel Lanois, Bob Dylan, Mark Knopfler, Neil Young, Gram Parsons, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison, Ryan Adams, Beck, Elvis Costello, Johnny Cash, Lucinda Williams, Lyle Lovett and most recently Rodney Crowell. Few artists have achieved such honesty or have revealed such maturity in their writing.
We have no doubt about where Steve Earle’s musical roots are planted. His new collection, “So You Wannabe an Outlaw,” makes it perfectly plain. “There’s nothing ‘retro’ about this record,” he states, “I’m just acknowledging where I’m coming from.” “So You Wannabe an Outlaw” is the first recording he has made in Austin, Texas. Earle has lived in New York City for the past decade, but he acknowledges, “Look, I’m always gonna be a Texan, no matter what I do. And I’m always going to be somebody who learned their craft in Nashville. It’s who I am.”
This year’s lineup is truly unforgettable. For those who come to listen, play, reminisce and enjoy each year — usually those still left standing at the final performance on Sunday evening — they couldn’t imagine being anywhere else during January. Neither could I.
As always, 100 percent of the net proceeds from the 30A Songwriters Festival benefit the Cultural Arts Alliance of Walton County (CAA) and help it to fulfill its mission to support the arts throughout Walton County.
For more information on the 2018 30A Songwriters Festival, including a full list of artists and venues, visit 30asongwritersfestival.com.